The Department of Defense announced on Thursday that two Guantanamo detainees had been transferred to El Salvador. The DoD did not name them in its press release, but the New York Times identified the men as two Uighurs (Muslims from western China): Abdul Razak and Ahmed Mohamed.
Most journalists long ago decided that they weren’t going to do much real reporting on the detainees held at Guantanamo. Even though thousands of pages of documents have been either declassified or leaked from Guantanamo, they are barely ever consulted in the media’s coverage.
Charlie Savage of the Times did what most journalists do and went to the detainees’ lawyers for a quote. Mohamed “wants to become a salesman or merchant in El Salvador,” one detainee attorney told Savage.
The Associated Press also consulted the detainees’ attorneys, and decided to add a blatantly false claim of its own. The twenty-two Uighurs held at Guantanamo (most of whom have already been transferred, only three remain) were initially suspected of having links to al Qaeda, the AP reports, but “it turned out they were not terrorists and had merely fled their homeland in search of opportunities and freedom abroad.”
Even the most charitable interpretation of the Uighurs’ time in Afghanistan cannot go this far. At minimum, we know they received weapons training at a camp in the Tora Bora Mountains in order to fight the Chinese government. They were not, in other words, “merely” searching for “opportunities and freedom abroad.”
The AP is wrong to claim they didn’t have any links to al Qaeda as well. I’ve written many times before about the Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo. They were members of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP), an al Qaeda affiliated group that has fought alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban for well more than a decade. They were captured after fleeing the Battle of Tora Bora. Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) suspected that many of them, including the two transferred to El Salvador this week, participated in that fight.
Here are some additional facts that likely won’t be reported by the Times, the Associated Press, or most media outlets:
Ahmed Mohamed was the only Uighur held at Guantanamo who JTF-GTMO deemed a “high” risk to the U.S. and its allies. (Nineteen of the other twenty-two Uighurs held at Guantanamo were determined to be “medium” risk who may pose a threat to the U.S. or its allies. Two were deemed “low” risk.) A review of the files on Mohamed reveals this is likely due to his alleged leadership position in the ETIP and his suspected ties to senior al Qaeda leaders.
Mohamed, like several of his fellow Uighur detainees, admitted that the leader of his group was Abdul Haq. In 2009, the Obama administration’s Treasury Department and the United Nations designated Haq as a senior al Qaeda operative. Haq was on al Qaeda’s elite Shura Majlis, or executive leader council. Haq’s predecessor, Hassan Mahsum, also had substantive ties to senior al Qaeda leaders. The Uighur detainees admitted Mahsum was a leader of their organization as well. And Haq’s successor (Haq was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2010) has been appointed to a senior al Qaeda leadership position in northern Pakistan, too.
One of Mohamed’s fellow detainees identified him as a “subordinate” to one of the all time al Qaeda terrorists: Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who is held at Guantanamo. The detainee who made this identification was, according to leaked JTF-GTMO files, one of al Iraqi’s henchmen.
The Times mentions that the Uighurs were ordered freed by a D.C. district court judge in 2008. The DoD repeated this in its press release announcing the transfers. Neither mentioned that the same ruling did not discuss Abdul Haq, the detainees’ admitted ties to Haq (and Hassan Mahsum), or Haq’s known role as a senior al Qaeda operative. (To be fair to the court, that last part became widely known only after the district court’s ruling. However, it should have been easy to learn that the ETIP – a known affiliate of al Qaeda – had extensive ties to senior al Qaeda leaders well before that.)
There is much more to the Uighur detainees’ story, but you won’t read about it at most media outlets.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.